Spending time in prison can provide plenty of time for songwriting. At least that's what Domenic "Nicky" Palermo, vocalist/guitarist of the Philadelphia-bred shoegaze band Nothing, did while serving out a sentence for attempted murder. After releasing the album Guilty of Everything earlier this year, Nothing has been garnering attention and critical acclaim for their haunting sound, a wall of noise accompanied by Nicky's soothing ghostlike vocals.
Nicky isn't shy when it comes to talking about his past and present. He spoke to Gimme Noise about prison, drugs, and the incredible music that came out of his permanent nightmare, as Nothing prepares to touch down in Minneapolis for a performance at the Triple Rock this Friday.
What was the musical climate in Philadelphia and the hardcore scene like when you were younger?
I've been going to shows for quite some time. I think the first show that I went to was a punk rock show, a Subhumans show in like '95 or '96. The punk scene and hardcore scene has always been pretty solid in Philadelphia. There was a period in the late '90s, early 2000s where things started to take a little bit of a turn towards a pretty violent place. There was a lot of fighting going on in Philly during that time, and it was a really strange point. I think it's back to normal by now. It's just always been a pretty good place for punk and hardcore, I think, since before I was around.
You had Wes Eisold (Cold Cave) co-produce something on your album. Did you meet back when he was playing with American Nightmare?
Wes and I are friends, and have been friends since around that time that he put out the demo as American Nightmare. I would travel up to Boston all the time and hang out with him, and we've had a pretty tight relationship since then.
Do you see yourself working with him again?
I mean, we always have done stuff together, even if it's just e-mailing each other new projects back and forth. This is probably the most busy we've ever been in music, from both of our perspectives. Things are a little bit tough to deal with... he's out in Europe soon with Nine Inch Nails. He stays pretty busy.
The dissolution of Horror Show... that kind of set off a whole series of unfortunate events. I want to talk a little bit about being in prison. How did you cope with that?
It was a struggle day to day, obviously. I had support from people who were interested in the music I did, and some really good friends at the time. I had a light at the end of the tunnel to eventually get to. When I was walking into it... I had a seven-year sentence with a two-year minimum, so I knew I was at least doing two years of that seven, and then I would have to see parole and they would pretty much decide whether I was going to stay or go. That was always tough to deal with: not really knowing if the end of those two years would be the end of this stretch of hell.
I read a ton in there. I tried to keep to myself. I had times where, you know, you get comfortable in any situation you're in, I mean at least I do. After being in for like, a year or so, it feels like home and you start to roll, and days pass, as depressing as that is. I'm not saying that I wouldn't go home at the drop of a dime but you start to get into a routine and have fun in there sometimes. You play cards with dudes that you're friendly with. For most of it, though, I was just reading a lot, and writing, and trying to get my head screwed on straight because there was a reason that I was in there, and there was a problem. I wanted to try to get into my own head and come up with some kind of understanding of why I was sitting in that prison cell at twenty one years old. I had never really asked myself that question before.
What answer did you come up with? What motivated you to commit that act?
I definitely come from an angry family. Everyone in my family has been a pretty smart, intelligent person, but they've had their share of issues with drugs and violence. I'm sure that attributed to it. The environment, growing up in Kensington in Philadephia, everyone was fighting, everyone was drinking and doing drugs and stealing. It's just kind of what everyone was doing. I just became accustomed to that life. There weren't many fucks given at that time. I didn't really think about what was going to happen tomorrow. I like to think that I do now, but, I mean, some things change and some things don't.
Several different answers came into my head over the course of time that I was there. There's times still when life starts to really get the best of me, and I almost sometimes yearn for that isolation from everything again. I know it seems like an absurd thing to say, you know, to want to be back in a prison cell, but it's the fact that sometimes there's solace in that isolation and you really can't mimic that anywhere outside of it.
Did you feel safe there?
There are worse places than other places. I was moved around several different times. The first two months I got in like six fights, and then when I was shipped off to prison I only got in like three more fights in twenty one months, so there's worse places to be in. County jail is always going to be the worst. Camden County is one of the worst in the country. The first ten days I was locked up was in a ten-day holding, to get all the dope fiends to not be sick. They had the flu, all that stuff. It was basically all heroin and crack addicts that stuck a bunch of drugs off their ass and for the first three days were just sniffing heroin off the toilet seat and smoking crack in the cell, and there were five of us in the cell and just two beds. I was like, holy fuck, I'm in actual hell.
Then I remember looking ahead and thinking, how the fuck am I going to do this for this long? It gets better. Well, Camden County never really got better, it was a pretty nightmarish place.
Do you feel like you experienced an enlightenment of sorts while you were inside?
I started to understand who I was, and what people ought to be, and what the purpose of everything is.
Were you content, or did you find acceptance?
If I accepted it, I'm kind of content, right? I'm not necessarily dwelling on it -- it doesn't bother me so much anymore. I still get out of bed every day. I don't fuckin' put a bullet in my head. It just is what it is.[page]
If you could describe your philosophy, what would that look like?
I'm a pretty cynical individual. I just don't really feel like there's any actual purpose for anyone here. I just kind of think that we're just some species that became just a little bit more self-aware. Everyone's the center of their own universe, and everything is just...humans are just constantly fucking everything up and ruining everything. I tend to believe that this is just a infinite repetition. It's just constantly happening over and over again. I probably don't want to get too far into it because I'll probably sound actually insane.
How does that translate into your music then? Are you trying to reveal some kind of hidden beauty you found in that? There is beauty in your music, though it's kind of muddled and needs to be ripped out of there. Is that the intention?
I'm just trying to emulate what life seems to be -- just a constant repetition of suffering and pain, and in all suffering and pain there is always a speck of beauty hidden. We try to extract that tiny bit of beauty, but it's almost just a reflection of some sort of suffering and despair.
When you listen to your music, if you were to describe the sound in a visual way, what kind of imagery would you use? If a person couldn't physically listen to it, and you needed to translate it into an image for them, what would you show them?
Ever since I started doing this project, all of the media and all of the branding, if you could call it that, has always been very minimal and bold, and usually colorless. I don't necessarily knows if that translates well with the music, but it's kind of just something that I've always seen and I wanted it to embody.
Is there a particular environment that you feel would best suit your music being played in?
Probably on a massive amount of drugs.
Opiates, for sure.
You've said that the concept of the record was a confession. What are you confessing?
What we really are. There's some songs that are a personal confession, and a lot of what I used for this record I pulled from old notes that were from my time incarcerated, which I had never really used before.
You've been really open about using stimulants for songwriting.
It's like every day we'll get beer, we'll get drinking, we'll do whatever is around that day, and we sit around and just write. We always have to record it on some kind of device, even on a fucking phone or something, and when we get back to practicing we try it to see what it sounds like. We're not the kind of band that goes into a studio and starts trying to write songs, we're just always writing songs because we don't have anything else to do.
I mean, yeah, we write on drugs. When we recorded the record we did take a ton of Adderall every day because we were militant. We were getting to the studio at 9 a.m. and then recording to 10 p.m., and then we'd have to be there at 9 a.m. the next day, and it went on for two weeks straight. It was probably about a month of actual recording, but there was a stint where, I think it was seventeen days or something, we'd work straight through every day. We would wake up, crush some Adderall in a coffee, drink it, smoke a million cigarettes and then start drinking wine at 6 o'clock just to try to come down, just to do it all over again. It was fucking gross, honestly. It was pretty painful.
OK. Last question. What makes you happy? What makes you laugh? What gets you hysterically laughing and smiling, so happy?
There's gotta be something.
Yeah, yeah. I'm not trying to say that I'm never happy. I'm just trying to think. This question made me smile, so that's funny. Um... I really like Larry David a lot. I could just let him fuck around and be such a piece of shit around me all the time, and I would just love it.
Nothing performs with Sweet Cobra and Pelican this Friday, May 16 at the Triple Rock. $13 ADV/$15 DOS, 8 PM, 18+.
You might want to wear earplugs for this one
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